Gila Guttmann

Israeli Army Veteran, Computer Analyst & Noted Bridge Player

At the age of 18, Gila Guttman was drafted into the Israeli army, where she was selected to study technology. Just three years later, she and her new husband moved to the United States so that he could study orthopedics. There, she found a calling in selling computers and instructing others on use of GE technology, a skill that was rare for women at the time.

Where were you born?

I was born in Palestine.

Which is now?

Israel.

Your education is varied, with a stint in the Israeli army. How did those experiences prepare you for your success in bridge?

In Israel, you go to elementary school until the eighth grade. Then you are tested. If your test scores indicate you are not university bound, you are sent to a trade school. There are private high schools, but I attended a government supported high school, which was very competitive. If you get into the government supported high school, you are required to major in defined subjects. My major was science because I intended to go to medical school. There were 30 boys and five girls in my class.

When I finished high school, I was drafted into the army where I was tested in math and English. I was selected for technology, or at the time, computers. While I was in the army, I was married and postponed my studies.

You were drafted into the Israeli army?

Everybody had to go to the army unless girls would say they were religious. Then they would be excused from serving. All my friends went to the army.

What year was that?

In 1961, I was drafted. 

Those were tough years in Israel. 

You first went to basic training, which is really quite tough. The conditions are very unpleasant. They try to make a soldier out of you; then the army decides what to do with you. I was selected to become a systems analyst, and my oldest sister was trained as an air traffic controller in airports. My youngest sister was a secretary. She learned to type and to take shorthand. We were assigned different jobs, which is helpful because when you finish the army, you are more focuses than when you go straight to university. You have a skill or profession, so you can earn money while you go to school. 

After that, when did you resume your studies? 

I worked to support my husband, who was a medical resident at the time. When my daughter was six years old, I went back to school. At that point, I decided to study accounting because I realized that most computer people didn’t understand accounting, and accountants didn’t understand technology. I thought I would be a consultant for companies who wanted to computerize. I was a very good student because I was motivated. Most of the students that were in class with me were there because they finished high school. It was good that I waited to go back to school because I certainly wouldn’t have studied that hard if I had entered the university right after high school. When I graduated, I wanted to go to work. My husband really wasn’t thrilled with the idea because, at that point, he was established. He was taking time off, and he wanted me to be available for him. He didn’t want me to say, “I have to work.” So, I started playing bridge instead.

What did your father and mother do? 

My mother was an opera singer, but it was more like a hobby. She performed, but it wasn’t like a job. My dad had a factory for polishing diamonds. He was a member of the Syndicate in London and was one of the first people to start the diamond industry in Israel. It has become a very big thing in Israel.

Did he spend a good amount of time in London? 

Yes, he had to go to London frequently. My dad was a very good bridge player. He used to go to a bridge club, but he didn’t play tournaments; he played bridge for money. People tell me they are really the best bridge players in the world. They can win or lose a lot of money.

Did you ever think about being a money bridge player?

No.

Why?

I don’t know. I just like the competition. I like to compare my results with other people’s results.

Do you play duplicate bridge?

Yes.

So, you were about 30 years old when you started playing bridge. Did you play competitive bridge?

No, I started with some friends. We took lessons and tried to play together.

Did you have an aptitude from the beginning? 

Yes.

You advanced quickly?

Well, not right away. One of my goals was to play with somebody who was better than me. People in the bridge world are very snobbish. They don’t accept newcomers very quickly. I remember one time my husband hired someone, a famous bridge player, to play with me because it was my wish to play with somebody better.

Gila Guttmann admires her bouquet on her wedding day, January 1st, 1963. The wedding took place in Tel Aviv at the Beit H’rofeh (house of doctors). Gila often joked that Gad could never forget their anniversary because it was such an easy date to remember.

Did you beat him?

No. No, I played with him.

You played duplicate with him. How did that go? 

It went very exciting. It was an experience for me.

You knew you could be great?

Well, that is the one thing about bridge. I’m not great, and there are many people much greater than me, but it’s very challenging. You can play it on many levels and enjoy it, but there’s always more.

But you’re at the highest competitive level? 

There are many people much better than me. Bridge is very big here in Florida because there are a lot of retired people compared to other places. I have many different partners that I play with and enjoy. One of my favorite partners is Linda Winston. She’s a Canadian champion. She represents Canada in international competitions. The reason I enjoy very much playing with her is because she is very calm. Some people get very hyper and excited. Nobody’s perfect, and sometimes you make mistakes. With Linda, it’s very peaceful. I have to say that, during this past year, bridge really saved me. You go there, and for a few hours, you concentrate on cards. You don’t think about your husband. You don’t think about your children. It is just a zone. My dad always said, “Women cannot be good bridge players because they don’t concentrate. They think about what they are going to cook for dinner and what they are going to wear tomorrow,” but I don’t. When I play bridge, I don’t even hear what’s going on around me.

You are a noted bridge player, covered in The New York Times. How many people do you know that written up in The New York Times? 

Bridge is a wonderful hobby. It has added a lot to me personally. Besides, I’m a competitive person.

What was the best hand you ever played in bridge, and how do you know it?

There have been many goods hands.

You have to pick one. There must have been one that has a little edge. Which hand and why? 

I don’t know how to pick one. But I know I was playing once in a charity hame. The game was actually a benefit for Parkinson’s disease because one of the very famous bridge players had Parkinson’s. Every year, they choose a charity, and he was the star. Many, many bridge luminaries came to this game, and I was playing against a world champion. His bid made it very difficult to enter the bidding. He made a preemptive bid, and I just made a bid. I got a very good score against him, and it gave me a lot of satisfaction. It’s like a friend of mine who plays piano. Somebody said to him, “That was really good.” He said, “Yes, I love Mozart.” The man replied, “But that wasn’t Mozart.” To which my friend responded, “Ah, well, I wanted to know who gives me the compliment.” He was vetting whether the man complimenting him knew anything about music. Sometimes you do very well against people that don’t really know what they’re doing. So, it’s like taking candy away from children.

And the moral of the story is?

It gives you more satisfaction when you do well against somebody who’s really good.

Do you think that is the secret to living well? Keeping your brain and your mind occupied? 

Absolutely. It is very, very important to be able to focus on things and keep sharp. I see people my age that have no interests, and to me, they seem old.

You do not seem old to me.

I don’t feel old. That is the whole thing. When I look in the mirror, I feel old. But, in my head, I think I’m still young.

Gila and husband, Gad, on their 28th wedding anniversary.

So, tell me about the first time you saw your husband.

People asked my husband how long we had known each other. He said he knew me before I was born, which is true because our parents were friends. Gad’s father was my dentist, and I was friends with his sister, who is a year older than me. She always rubbed it in. She would ask me what I was doing in math. I said, “Adding and subtracting,” and she would respond, “I’m multiplying and dividing.” I remember when my brother was being Bar Mitzvahed. I was ten years old. My sister was older, so she sat with the adults, but my mother made a table for all the children and told me I was in charge. I told everybody where to sit and what to do. I was very proud. His sister came in and said, “Your brother’s having his Bar Mitzvah. My brother’s a pilot.” At the time, in Israel, a pilot was like an astronaut. I was ten. He was twenty.

So your husband was ten years your senior?

Ten and a half years. I remember that very day when he came in with his wings. It was devastating for me. During the years, I remember seeing him when he would come and visit while he was in Europe studying medicine. I met him once when I was 16, and he came to Israel on a visit when I was in the Army. His intention was to return to the U.S. for his residency. Instead, he fell in love with me, changed his plans and decided to stay in Israel. I was a little nervous at the time because I knew it was a big commitment for him. I wasn’t quite sure that I was ready to get married.

How old were you?

I was 18 when we started dating, but he convinced me.

How old were you when you were married?

Nineteen.

So you then left the army?

Yes, you are released from the Army when you are married.

Your husband was quite renowned being an air force pilot in Israel during such turmoil and tumult in the region.

Prior to his group of pilots, all the pilots in Israel were foreign trained from World War II. Ezer Weizman, who was eventually the president of Israel, was his wing commander.

And Yitzhak Rabin?

He was there in the very beginning. Sharon went to the same elementary school with him. The kids always got a kick out of it. He told them that he used to ride a donkey to school. They lived in the country because the cities were being bombed. There was no fuel, so his father bought him a donkey, and he rode it to school.

And his father was the local dentist?

His father studied medicine and then specialized in dentistry. He was an M.D. and a dentist.

This famous pilot came home for a visit from medical school; you re-connect and fall in love. Did you know you would marry him?

No, certainly not.

He really was the pursuer?

Yes.

He just wore you down?

Yes, and he talked me out of going to medical school.

Do you regret that?

No, because once I decided to marry him, we couldn’t both be so occupied. Whenever there was a problem with the children, they called me. He was not to be disturbed. We had our first child, our son, when I was 20.

If your daughter said to you, “Mom, I want to go to medical school,” and her husband said, “I’d rather you not because there’s only room for one of us.” What would you tell her?

I would tell her to go to medical school. But, you have to make peace with yourself.

Were there years when you said to yourself, “I could have been a doctor?”

Yes, but you have to understand I loved my husband very much. I never regretted marrying him, and it’s very difficult to raise children when both parents are totally occupied. When our daughter was born, it was important for me to be home for a while because I never had the luxury to be home with our son. I had to work. Nobody put a gun to my head and told me to have another child. So, once I made that decision, I always felt a commitment. I made a decision to marry Gad. I was okay with that decision. I made a commitment to have children, and I was okay with that decision. Everything else was secondary.

How many years were you in Israel?

We were married in ‘63, and then we came to the U.S. towards the end of ‘64. He wanted to do orthopedics, and he decided to apply in the United States. He was accepted in Philadelphia. At the time, we thought it was a temporary thing. The way medicine works in Israel is very different from here. You are either employed by the hospital, or you see patients in the clinic and refer them to the hospital when they need surgery. After they have surgery, they come back to you. In order to be a surgeon, you have to be employed by the hospital, and they don’t give steady jobs to anybody who’s not head of a department. It is like a pyramid with only one at the top. Whereas in the United States, there can be a lot of surgeons in the hospital. We went to Israel, and he wasn’t offered a job but was promised that if he would come, they would figure out something. Nobody would commit to anything. At some point, they offered him to be head of a department. By then, the kids were in high school, and in Israel, you have to do a matriculation exam. You don’t just finish high school. You have to be tested, and the test is on the Bible, Hebrew literature and grammar. I didn’t think it would be fair to take our children into that situation. So, we stayed in the United States.

Gila Guttmann sits down for a candid interview with ELYSIAN Publisher Karen Floyd, at Gila’s home in Boca Raton, Florida.

What was your first work experience in the United States?

My first experience actually was teaching Hebrew because I couldn’t get a job in computers right away. I signed up with an employment agency, and meanwhile, I started teaching Hebrew. When I started teaching Hebrew, they told me that I had to get a teaching certificate. So, I also went to school to get a teaching degree. While I was doing that, I received a call for a job in a bank in their computer department. I had a commitment to teach Hebrew, which they accepted. I would leave twice a week early and teach. So, I worked in the bank while I taught Hebrew and finished my degree in teaching. A few years later, I left to work with General Electric. I remember when I went for my entry, I had to talk to human resources, and I had to fill out a form. They asked about my army experience, and I said I was a sergeant in the army. My friends, who I worked with later, told me they expected somebody completely different when they heard I had been in the army. At that time, there were very few women in America in the military. I worked for GE until Gad finished his residency and took a job in Washington.

Well, what did you do for GE?

I was a systems analyst and worked on computers. I was a representative and worked with the salesmen. When they wanted to sell a computer, I had to demonstrate what our computers could do. I would make a benchmark and when a client bought a computer, I would teach their people about our computer.

How many other women were doing what you were doing?

I was the only woman.

The other women that were there, were doing what?

They were secretaries.

Can you share with me the last part of the beautiful journey with your husband?

When it first started happening, I didn’t want to believe it. He forgot little things. I remember we went to see a neurologist, and at that time, he told me that my husband had Alzheimer’s. He said, “You don’t see it so much now, but in a few months, you’ll see a big difference.” That was maybe six years ago. I didn’t see a big difference at first. I was very depressed when he told me this. I went for a second opinion, and the doctor said to me, “You can’t really tell until you’re doing an autopsy if it’s Alzheimer’s or not.” When I asked the first doctor, “How do you know?” He replied, “This is my profession. It’s my specialty. That’s how I know.” But, there wasn’t a big difference. He was very functional. About three years ago, maybe two and a half years ago, he told me he forgot how to get home. He was in the car, but he knew that the GPS had the home address. So, he put it in, and he got home. The next week I sold his car. I was afraid to let him drive. It was a hard decision to take his car away because he loved taking classes at FAU. They have curriculum called lifelong learning, and he really enjoyed taking classes in music and philosophy. I hired a driver to take him. It was a very gradual thing. We used to joke about it because I think humor helps you live through many situations. He would forget things, but he remembered a lot of things. Sometimes I would forget things, and he would remember them. But slowly, slowly he stopped reading. He couldn’t really concentrate. He enjoyed watching TV, but I don’t know how much of it he really was getting. We would go to a movie, and when we came out, he would ask me questions that made me realized he didn’t really get it. It was very frustrating for him because he knew, at that point, what was happening to him. I went to a neurologist here, and he did testing and said that he didn’t have Alzheimer’s. His memory loss, or whatever, was renal failure. In other words, when the kidneys don’t work well, there are poisons in the body, and that was what was causing his confusion. I don’t know if it matters what caused it, but I kind of hoped that, once we started dialysis, it would stabilize. If it was renal connected, it wouldn’t progress, but it did progress.

 

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